Ravine Gardens State Park in Palatka has close to 100,000 flowering trees and shrubs, ready to be admired during Azalea Days, March 2 and 3, 2013.
With a warm winter, blooming peaked in Januar, the earliest ever, according Emily Rodriguez, a park services event specialists.
There will be still be blooms for the festival, though. With that many azaleas, even if they’re not all blooming at the same time, they can still put on a good show, park staff members say.
The park’s festival includes ranger-led narrated wagon rides through the park, music and food and emphasizes the park’s history. The Azalea Queen and her court will be there, a tradition that started in 1938. Historic re-enactors are on hand, including one playing Babe Ruth, who lived in Palatka and coached hitting there.
Ravine Gardens State Park in Palatka traces its story to the Depression-era jobs program, the Civil Works Administration. In fact, in 1937, it was named the nation’s outstanding CWA project. (It’s one of nine Florida parks built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.)
During the less commercial pre-Disney era, Ravine Gardens was one of the 10 most visited tourist attractions in the state.
The army of unemployed workers started with a deep, raw ravine formed by a spring-fed tributary to the nearby St. Johns River. They planted nearly 100,000 flowering plants — azaleas, dogwoods, redbud and camellias — creating a formal garden around the splashing stream. The gardens are set amidst a forest of native mosses, ferns and live oaks.
There’s a paved 1.8-mile road through the 146-acre park, with many picnic sites and a playground along the way.
Perhaps the best time to explore the Ravine Loop is one hour before sunset, when the road is closed to cars but remains open for pedestrians, bicycles, and wheelchairs.
Hikers can clamber along two miles of trails that follow the steep ravine. Two suspension bridges are a fun addition to the trail, particularly for kids.
If you go, take note of the administration building and the log concession building. Constructed of cypress logs and knees in 1935, they are considered regionally significant as examples of American Rustic Architecture.
Admission is $5 per carload up to eight people. Hours are 8 a.m. to sunset daily. Admission is $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Three is no additional charge for events or admission to Azalea Days, which also includes an art show and sale by the Palatka Art League and CREATE. The park’s Azalea Days occurs in conjunction with City of Palatka’s Azalea Festival in downtown Palatka.
Website for Ravine Gardens State Park
More about Florida Azalea Festival
Things to do near Palatka:
There are a number of kayak and canoe trails in the St. Johns River and tributaries around Palatka. The Putnam County Blueways has information on six trails, from 60 miles on the St. Johns to the popular, scenic 9-mile-long Ocklawaha trail.
The Atlantic beach is near and in this area it has an Old Florida feel. Flagler Beach is a perfect barfoot beach town.
Also nearby is Dunns Creek State Park, with four miles of multi-use trails (hiking, biking on fat-tire bikes and equestrian) including to the pristine waters of Blue Pond, a sinkhole lake.